When Apple CEO Steve Jobs speaks, his words are dissected almost as carefully as what he doesn’t say. So in early September, just before Apple was set to unveil a number of new products, speculation ran high among tech watchers that the next big item in Jobs’s vision was going to be an Apple tablet computer.
But when no mention was made of the eagerly anticipated Apple tablet (the Tapplet? the MacTab?), a new round of rumours began about what Jobs is thinking and whether he may be the technology’s saviour by Christmas or perhaps sometime next year.
Tablets, which include touch-screen laptops and slates that can be operated with fingers or a penlike stylus, have been around since the 1990s but really took off in 2002, when Microsoft released its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system.
For tablet fans, who once thought convertible laptops, which have screens that can be flipped around so they look like a tablet, would be the next big thing in personal computers, the possibility that Apple was entering the market was seen as a sign that the waning technology could be revived.
Vancouver-based Web designer and computer consultant Houston Krohman is no fan of Apple, disagreeing with its headlock on the on-line retailing of digital music and videos. But Krohman told the Georgia Straight that he believes Apple’s entry into the tablet arena is both inevitable and a good thing.
For two years during engineering school, Krohman used a Dell Latitude XT Tablet PC. With the help of a portable scanner, he was able to go almost completely paperless.
“I was surprised at how well the tablet worked,” Krohman said by phone. “It was even able to recognize my handwriting, which is so messy that I actually got notes when I was in school saying I should be excused from writing assignments. On a good day, I can’t even recognize my own writing.”
The tablet recognized Krohman’s scrawls, which he made with the pen that came with it on the computer’s screen, allowing him to do formulations and calculations, as well as design Web sites.
Despite being impressed by the functionality of his tablet PC, Krohman is ready to retire the device because he doesn’t have much use for it now that he’s not in school.
Another former fan who has lost his passion for the tablet is Andrew Robulack, a technology consultant based in Whitehorse. He initially liked the fact that there was a small community of tech-savvy people who used the computers and were die-hard fans. As a visual thinker, Robulack said by phone, he liked being able to capture his thoughts using a stylus.
But while meeting with clients and trying to sketch out his ideas, Robulack discovered he often got stuck because the files couldn’t be easily shared.
“I often ended up going ”˜Screw it’ and wrote it down on a piece of paper and PDFed it, scanned, and e-mailed it over,” Robulack said. “The reality is Bill Gates’s concept of a paperless flow into the digital realm didn’t transition well. The tablet was like a five-pound pad of paper that took a while to turn on when I could have just grabbed paper.”
Robulack said he ultimately stopped using his Lenovo ThinkPad tablet because what was designed to be a “natural, organic experience” was tripped up by incomplete and inconsistent technology.
Even hard-core fans like Jeff Van West, who wrote a book for Microsoft about tablet PCs, say that without an Apple intervention, the technology’s prospects are questionable. Van West started using tablets in 2001 or 2002, his first being a unit from Acer.
“I literally wore it out between typing and the use of the touch screen,” Van West said by phone from Portland, Maine. “The case was cracked; the keys no longer had any letters on them.”
Van West is surprised that tablets haven’t become more popular. Bill Gates, chair of Microsoft, was one of the earliest supporters of tablets, and Van West said lawyers and doctors are some of the biggest users of the devices, in part because there’s software that has been developed for their professions. But he said the doctors and lawyers he’s talked to all dislike the devices and their limited software options.
Before the recent rise in popularity of netbooks, there was the potential for tablets to become the second laptop in a household. Now, Van West doesn’t think tablets are user-friendly or portable enough that they will supplant netbooks or laptops.
That’s where Apple comes in. The company already has touch-screen patents, and reports of large purchase orders for screens suggest it may be developing a 10-inch tablet.
Adding to the tablet speculation is the rumoured Microsoft entry, code-named Courier. The technology blog Gizmodo reported in September that Microsoft is working on a “booklet” with two touch screens.
Van West said a number of factors favour the odds that Apple will come out with a tablet in the near future, but the big question is how it will look. The proven popularity of e-book readers like Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony Reader show that people are interested in carrying a handheld device that’s larger than an iPod, he argued.
But computer users are so accustomed to keyboards and mice that picking up a pen to write on a screen can feel awkward.
“The greatest ability of a tablet is also its Achilles’ heel,” Van West said. “To really get it and take advantage of it, you have to change your way of computing. You have to think differently about how you do things.”
A few years ago, Van West wasn’t sure the tablet would survive. However, devices like the iPhone and the iPod Touch have changed how many people feel about using touch screens. In Van West’s view, the tablet should get small enough to be held in one hand so that you can write on it with the other.
“It was too radical a jump from a computer to a human-interface device,” Van West said. “But all Steve Jobs has to do is make a larger iPhone, and those of us who have been nursing along some old equipment hoping to not buy another tablet will get their wish.”